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The Yellow Brick Road

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

All New People
Ryan Duncan, Virginia Cavaliere, Cedric Leiba, Jr., and Frank Viveros.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Almost eight years on and Wicked is still packing them to the rafters? Assuming your kids haven't already graduated from high school, they're probably as tired of waiting to see the Wizard of Oz inspired musical as you are antsy about paying Broadway's mesospheric ticket prices. But one show playing in town this summer, Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, makes it easier to split the difference: The Yellow Brick Road.

Okay, okay, so it doesn't have Stephen Schwartz's dissonant, pop-happy score, or even any spectacle to speak of. But this cute take on L. Frank Baum's original novel, and its even-more-famous 1939 film version of it, has a unique point of view, plenty of color of its own, and it's free. That's not a bad combination in any season, but it's particularly ideal when trying to think of original ways you and your children can fill time together.

Certainly, this isn't your grandmother's Oz adaptation, though given its spiritual resemblance to The Wiz, maybe it's your aunt's. But unlike that genial African-American version, this one (written by Mando Alvarado, Jaime Lozano, and Tommy Newman) puts a different ethnic spin on its story of a young girl launched away from home and into a swirling fantasy world: This one bursts with Hispanic flair.

This is more than just a gimmick, however. Librettists Alvarado and Newman have written their story of Dora (Virginia Cavaliere) to be about a young girl as trapped between worlds on Earth as in Oz. On her 16th birthday, she chafes against the efforts of her mother (Lexi Rhoades) to force her to celebrate in traditional style, completely with an elaborate party and a billowing pink dress after all, Dora doesn't even speak Spanish (and doesn't want to). But when she meets an enigmatic, elderly neighbor (Natalie Toro) who thinks Dora needs a change in perspective... well, you don't need to be chased by a tornado to guess how the rest of the story plays out.

At least there are some lively twists. Here, the Scarecrow (Ryan Duncan, one of the original Altar Boyz) has a head so full of mixed-up dictionary pages that he constantly confuses English and Spanish. The Tin Man is now the Iron Chef (Frank Viveros), who makes a mean paella but is afraid his food lacks heart. The furry feline the trio encounters is still cowardly, but he's a Mountain Lion (and played by Cedric Leiba, Jr.) who feels betrayed by his own size. Dora's tag-along dog is now a fierce Chihuahua named Gypsy she keeps in her backpack. Their task is to defeat the nasty La Bruja (Toro again), who's upset that Dora has stolen her sister's ruby-studded shoes and their final confrontation comes by way of a flamenco-fueled dance off.

Lozano and Newman's salsa- and merengue-infused score is enjoyable, if a bit exhausting (it packs 12 lengthy songs, plus several reprises, into just over an hour of playing time), and the numbers are thoroughly and energetically choreographed by Devanand Janki (who also directs) and Robert Tatad. Cavaliere captures the necessary sense of open-minded wonder for Dora, and Toro is a belty, over-the-top delight as the Witch; everyone else slides nicely into their roles as well. If Janki's staging could use a bit more invention to summon up the magic of Dora's journey, overall it will inspire youngsters' imagination more than the sprawling stage effects of That Uptown Oz Musical.

What's most interesting (if more for parents than kids) is the show's overall outlook. Whereas both The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its movie were little more than adventure tales, The Yellow Brick Road has plenty to say about assimilation: when it's good, when it isn't, and whether it's worth fighting for. Dora's quest for identity, at the expense of (or perhaps in accordance with) her mother's oppressive expectations, is one of the most sizzling political issues of our time, and addressing it, however indirectly, is risky in a format this essentially innocent.

But by not hitting you over the head with their argument, The Yellow Brick Road's writers make their analysis of the situation one anyone, of any age, will a have good time watching and listening to. Even if Dora's specific struggle seems, well, foreign, she's a headstrong girl who wants her mother to recognize her and her ideals as worthy of not just respect but even admiration. What child or, for that matter, what adult can't relate to that?


The Yellow Brick Road
Through August 19
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, between 7th Avenue and Hudson Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.theatreworksusa.org